Scalene Movie Review: Crazy Women Desperately Seeking Justification

When the credits rolled on Scalene, groans could be heard throughout my living room. Why? Because it took us on a journey of extreme measures, but along the way forgot to justify any of them and trips over its own shoelaces of pretentiously telling the story in an inconsistently convoluted manner. Be warned, spoilers are incoming.

The movie was billed as a “perceptual thriller that revolves around a mother’s revenge after her mentally-challenged son is accused of sexual assault by his student caretaker.” So I go in thinking Vantage Point but where the pivotal event is a rape instead of an assassination. What we actually get is a pinch of Vantage Point, a dash of Memento, and a sprinkle of David Lynch trippiness.

The first third of the film is told Memento style, where each subsequent scene happens chronologically before the one that just ended. It retells the mother’s (Janice) perspective on the events, dealing with the judgment/sentence passed down against her son the supposed perpetrator. Some of the more violent, dramatic moments are portrayed in this part of the film, and it’s quickly apparent that filming people shooting and bludgeoning one another wasn’t the production team’s strong suit. One camera shoots a blunt object swinging or a gun going off and making contact, then another cuts in showing a queued up reaction. The physical conflict in the movie comes off unconvincing. It took a moment to get a grip on the direction in which things were headed in since it seemed to fall short in an area where Memento soared — making each scene a hook for the next, and the next providing an attention-grabbing clue/answer. Perhaps if Scalene had stuck with this presentation throughout, more (or at least enough) situations like this would have arisen to justify bothering telling the first act backwards.

However, the second act — the retelling from the handicapped son’s perspective — is told moving forward, with no clear transitional indicator between points of view. It starts when Jacob was 12 (but still appears to be in his 20s, causing some confusion on first viewing) and is huffing what looks like paint thinner with some friends in the boys’ locker room to get high. This goes awry, he has a seizure, leaving his brain starved of oxygen and leading to the condition he contends with in the present. What I didn’t figure out until about an hour after viewing Scalene was that in Jacob’s memory, while the surroundings may be accurate to a time and a place, the people in the memories are always present age. The scene in the locker room shows him in his 20s while the two kids with him look appropriately 12 or 13. That aligns with the details explained about his condition given elsewhere in the storyline.

Jacob also either has quite the imagination, or seems to project his experiences onto other people. The scene where the caregiver Paige is giving him a hand job is shown in this segment of the story as her having an orgasmically good time — clearly not the case once we get to her side of the story in the third act. He was really enjoying getting a tug while she was bawling her head off in remorse.

Then this brings into question whether any of his recollections can be valid. He has a flashback to his father warming up the belt to presumably “beat the retard” out of him and make him talk again after the accident that rendered him speechless. Did his father really do the beating or was it his mother with his father’s face projected onto her? When did his father leave? Did Jacob kill his father? Did the mother kill the father as a protective act toward her son? Could be consistent with her trying to murder Paige for framing her son, but none of these questions are even hinted at, let alone addressed in any detail. What we do see is that the mother is strict with her son, but never see her abuse him in a way that would explain his frequent injuries. She claims repeatedly that he has violent self-abusive outbursts that cause the wounds that routinely show up on his body, but we never see one of these tantrums for ourselves in the story. There are a number of unanswered questions that ultimately make it impossible to determine whether Paige’s motivations for her scheme in the third act were justified or not.

We cruise into the third act, well used to the forward-moving storyline at this point and scratching our heads as to why the first act was a misguided attempt to sit at the table with the likes of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Paige finds Janice’s flyer seeking a part-time caregiver for Jacob, calls the number, interviews, and gets the job; this benefits her college degree program as valuable experience, if nothing else. She doesn’t know the family prior to this phone call and has no backstory with them. She winds up befriending Jacob to some extent despite her parents’ urging to treat it solely as a job and not get attached. She continues discovering new bruises on his body every time she visits and has a stalemate confrontation with Janice about the origin of the bruises. Paige tries to report a possible case of abuse to Child Protective Services, but can’t go through with it due to a lack of evidence and perhaps (but not confirmed) suspecting that CPS wouldn’t get involved since Jacob is an adult. She sees Jacob’s mother being a bit verbally abusive toward him and assumes from there that it must just be the tip of the iceberg. She concocts a plan to fake the consequences of Jacob having raped her and goes running to the police to get him removed from the home.

There are a couple of sticky issues here. Jacob will be subjected to years of psychiatric counseling regardless of whether he’s viewed as a suspect in a sexual assault crime or a victim of physical and verbal abuse at home. The main difference is the stigma of being a being a sex offender weighs much more heavily than being the victim of abuse. While Paige wanted to make sure he got removed from the house, given the Trimble’s isolated existence, alerting the authorities would have made it obvious that Paige was the one who made the call (Janice’s boyfriend Charles didn’t like Jacob anyway and broke up with Janice the day after the rape). But could Paige really believe she’d dodge mom-rage by turning said mom’s son into a sexual predator rather than getting someone to simply take a closer look at the bruises?

Next, it’s never clear whether there was physical abuse still going on in the Trimble household or not. Jacob has a memory of his father winding up to beat him, but his father is never seen in the rest of the movie. We know Charles isn’t his father since Janice identifies her “date” as being with someone she met in the parking lot where she works. Janice is never shown doing anything worse to Jacob than allow a few slips of the tongue (“Why do you always fuck everything up?!”). His supposed self-abusive outbursts aren’t shown; in the scene where coffee is spilled on him, he screams and tries to get away from the situation — he doesn’t attack the person who spilled it on him. The audience has no evidence of abuse to justify Paige’s actions, and Paige doesn’t either. What if putting him in an institution ends up being the worst possible thing she could have done? She doesn’t even seem to consider this possibility; she just formulates her own version of reality and runs amok with it.

Up until now, it’s mostly matters of questionable judgment by the characters and that pointlessly rearranged first act that weakened Scalene. However, the scene of Janice trying to kill Paige at home is played out twice using much of the same footage, once at the beginning and once at the end. In Janice’s recollection of it at the beginning, she has that “one last lunge” at Paige with an umbrella. This part of the scene is completely omitted in Paige’s version. Ok, so if we chalk it up to this being Janice’s “fantasy” version of trying to kill Paige, why is she so immensely incompetent about it? She threatens Paige right at the front door instead of weaseling her way in clean, has to force her way into the house, then chase Paige upstairs and limply try to break down a door, finally gets to her prey and only manages to fire two bullets from the revolver that “won’t jam on ya” (heard elsewhere from the gun salesman in the movie), then Janice gets grand slammed in the head and falls down a flight of stairs. She goes on to let Paige call 911, give them her address and request police be sent right away, and describe the whole situation. If this is her perfect revenge scenario, Janice is an idiot. The very last shot of the film is of Janice sitting back in her car, having done nothing. Maybe none of it happened. If it did happen, why is she in her car crying alone instead of in police custody for attempted murder? If it didn’t happen and was just her idealized version of how things should play out, why did she imagine herself being such a failure at everything?

Scalene tries to tell an edgy story where a girl goes to great lengths to fix a situation she has no proof actually exists, and a mother fantasizes about being a clumsy oaf in a botched revenge plot. The strongest part of the story (not performances, just story, mind you — everyone did their best with what they were given) was Jacob, who didn’t say a word the whole time. We accepted from the beginning that he had trouble thinking for himself and behaving properly, but out of everyone, he alone managed to make the only informed, intelligent decision in 90 minutes of storytelling — not to eat pizza off the floor.

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Mark Buckingham

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